Helmet? Check. Body armour? Check. Water? Check. “Oh, and just in case, what’s your blood group?” Patrolling Helmand Province is risky business.
So with all necessities out of the way I piled into the back of our ‘Helmand Taxi’ — an armoured and camouflaged six-wheel Vector vehicle that whined and screeched its way through the thick, red sand. In the back I was joined by our gunner Captain Eddie McMillan from Saintfield and interpreter, Shazad, from Kabul.
The time was just past 8am and already the temperature had reached the high forties. Despite a dozen layers of factor 50, I could feel my pale Irish skin starting to sizzle in the sun.
“Another tough day ahead,” I was warned.
Surrounded by soldiers armed to the teeth, I set off on patrol into Camp Bastion, one of the most dangerous places in the world.
Our first port of call was the firing ranges — a routine stop so the soldiers can make sure all the weapons, of which there are many, were working correctly.
“No matter how much you oil them, in this heat they dry up all the time,” the soldiers said.
From the ranges you get a clear picture of the sheer scale of Camp Bastion. The sprawling base, about five miles long by two miles filled most of the horizon behind me. It is a giant ‘L’ shape with Bastion II home to mainly Danish and American troops and an array of aircraft at one end and Bastion I, the main British base at the other. Everything right down to the last bolt had to be brought in to build the camp from scratch.
Testing the weapons took about 20 minutes. While I slowly melted, soldiers, who have spent the last four months in the searing heat of FOB Sangin remark at the pleasant ‘drop in temperature’.
The aim of the patrol was to visit one of the Afghan National Army check points, to remind them that ISAF forces are keeping an eye on them — as much for their own security as anything else. They are easy Taliban targets.
As we approached the ‘Central Waddie’, a bumpy track through Afghanistan the terrain changed from sand to shingle and rocks.
For the most part though, sand, stones and a few sparse blades of greenery is really all to see.
I was told how people had started moving closer to Camp Bastion because of the protection it provides from thieves and Taliban.
No sooner had we stopped the vehicle and stepped out than four children from a local compound came looking for whatever the soldiers had to offer.
Zaual hag (15), cousin Hadullah (17) and sisters Hadace (7) and Olasah (4) clinched the cool water bottles handed out by the Royal Irish against their chests.
The two young girls, dressed in red were striking against the hazy desert soil. Their huge brown eyes stared up at the combat clad soldiers with guns taller than they were. But neither girl spoke — only the older boys said anything.
Captain McMillan said: “We try to interact with the locals as much as possible but we respect their culture. To see the little girls outside is unusual. Usually when we pull up, all the women go indoors.”
We approached ‘Highway One’ a ring-road built by the Russians to link all the major towns in Afghanistan and with off-shoots into Pakistan.
It was almost 11am when we rocked up to the police check point — which spans both sides of the Highway. Afghan police swarmed around, eager to tell the troops the latest news. And it was back through the desert to camp.
By this stage my clothes were soaked with sweat. Thankfully I just had to do the morning shift.
The battle for hearts and minds is central: soldiers
The challenge of winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Afghan nationals is among one of the most important tasks for soldiers from Northern Ireland.
Men from the second battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment have been tasked with Force Protection but are also on the ground attempting to reassure locals that the ISAF forces are there to protect them.
And the part-time soldiers of Imjin Company, who have swapped their nine-to-five jobs as taxi drivers and teachers, to carry out daily patrols in the blistering heat of the ‘Red Desert’, believe they are succeeding.
According to Captain Eddie McMillan, an NVQ assessor from Saintfield: “You can see more and more compounds being built closer to Camp Bastion. This is because of the security that we can offer against the thieves, local militia and the Taliban. We met one family who moved down from Musa Qal’eh to escape all the trouble.”
During gruelling 24-hour stints the Royal Irish soldiers man a heavily armed convoy and snake their way through the sand of Camp Bastion, Camp Shorabak and the surrounding area, taking in dozens of local compounds and part of Highway One — the ring road that links all of Afghanistan’s major towns.
They regularly come into contact with locals and as part of their bid to win them over they hand out bottles of chilled water, sweets as well as pencils and pens. While not a Taliban strong-hold the insurgents often transit through the area close to Camp Bastion and the soldiers also use the patrols to gather intelligence.